The Impact of CPAC 2011

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Jim Geraghty, columnist and blogger for the National Review, and C. Claudio Simpkins, conservative political commentator and guest-blogger for It's A Free Country, talk about what they saw at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.

The American Conservative Union held it's annual get-together last week – the Conservative Political Action Conference, also known as CPAC. According to the group, this was their biggest year yet, with a record turn out of 11,000 attendees. 

For years, the conference has been dominated by social issues, but not this year. 2011 was all about taxes and spending, as Jim Geraghty notes.

When there's peace and prosperity, people focus more on social issues of abortion and gay marriage and such...but when the country's running a 1.5 to 1.6 trillion annual deficit and the debt's even larger and, you know, 21 straight months of nine percent unemployment or higher, people start worrying about the economy.

According to a question in the straw poll, Geraghty says voters overwhelmingly chose limiting the size of  government as their highest priority. C. Claudio Simpkins points out that 49 percent of these voters were students between the ages of 18 and 25 -- a group also focused on the economy.

You've got a young group of individuals who are keen to these issues and who are sensitive paricularly to issues of job growth, issues of government spending and government growth and they're going to be concerned about these issues, given the unemployment rate and the uncertainty of their future as college students and graduate students.

The straw poll was a big win for Congressman Ron Paul, who garnered 30 percent of the votes. (He won last year too.) But less than a third of the CPAC attendees actually voted in the poll, and those that did are generally seen as Paul's loyal base. Among the listed choices on the straw poll were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (he came in second place with 24% of the votes), Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Another potential nominee who flirted with conference goers was New York's own Donald Trump. He wasn't in the straw poll, but certainly displayed a healthy confidence in his ability to get the job done. Plus he took a few choice shots at more established candidates: "Ron Paul has zero chance of getting elected... I'm also well acquanited with winning and that's what this country needs now, winning." Geraghty thinks this sounds like a giant publicity stunt.

There's a part of me that has this terrible feeling that this is all a giant prank or put-on, that he'll get up there on stage of the first major Republican debate with really high ratings and then we'll find out that he's not really interested in running for President but he has this fantastic new line of ties he really wants us to know about.

Geraghty points out that Trump has never held political office - though there does seem to be a new set of political standards. Many of the potential Republican candidates on the list have spent very little time in office.

You might argue that this is kind of the era of the celebrity president. I, myself, prefer to have someone who's a little more gray at the temples, someone who's had to make tough choices before, but perhaps the taste of the country is changing.

Simpkins adds that, Trump's barb aside, he's right about Ron Paul's low electability. And because of the demographics of the straw poll voters, it's really hard to take any of it too seriously.

I can't see it as something that, going forward, especially when you look at it producing the same numbers as it basically did last year in termos of Ron Paul's support and Mitt Romney's support, I don't know that it can be taken, with that kind of support, as something that's going to be speaking for the movement at large.

Geraghty agrees. He says CPAC's demographic isn't really an accurate sampling of your average Republican:

They are the die hards. They're the most dedicated of the dedicated which is one of the reasons that Ron Paul did so well...If passion ran campaigns, we'd have President Ron Paul by now probably. As it is, a potential presidential candidate doesn't go to CPAC because they want to win the straw poll, they want to go there because you get 11,000 or so conservative activists in one place and hopefully you give a barn burner of a speech and then some chunk of that 11,000 comes out and says, I really like that guy.